Old folk at lunch

Monday, March 9, 2015


Why are there few conservative intellectuals?  I guess George Will and the late Bill Buckley qualify but that's about it, as far as I can see.  Thomas Sowell is a great treasure that we are lucky to still have with us (he is 84) but what he says flows directly from his academic background as a Chicago school economist.

And that brings me swiftly to my main point. Intellectuals are actually shallow thinkers.  They are gifted amateurs who use popular knowledge -- or at least easily accessible knowledge -- to create new explanations of something or other.  It is of course a talent to be able to do that but in the absence of specialized knowledge the conclusions reached are rarely profound or very innovative.  And that is how Leftists think.  They don't accept that they actually need to learn stuff.  They think that they know it all already.  They think the truth is obvious.

Conservatives, by contrast, are acutely aware of how complex and unpredictable the world is and so mostly confine their writing to matters where they have detailed knowledge.  In my own case I often comment on economics -- but I am a former High School economics teacher.  I sometimes comment on issues in psychology, but I have a doctorate in it.

I often talk about dubious research methods that I see in environmentalism and in the medical literature  -- but I taught research methods and statistics for many years in a major Australian university and the thinking in both the medical and climatological literature violates some of the most basic principles about what research should be and do.   And the statistics I see in climatology and in the medical literature are frankly ludicrous.  Their errors could hardly be more basic -- ignoring statistical significance, assuming correlation is causation etc.

And I have in fact myself had papers published in the medical journals and I have also had research reports on environmentalism published in the academic journals.  So I am NOT an intellectual.  I have specialized knowledge in the areas that I write most about.

V.I. Lenin is quite a good example of an intellectual.  He wrote at length about the issues of his day but without any evident benefit of detailed knowledge in any field.  But he was bright.  He even started out as something of a libertarian. He once wrote:  “The bureaucracy is a parasite on the body of society, a parasite which ‘chokes’ all its vital pores…The state is a parasitic organism”.  Lenin wrote that in August 1917, before he set up his own vastly bureaucratic state in Russia.  He could see the problem but had no clue about how to solve it when he had the chance to do so.

How could he be so stupid?  How could he do what he himself saw as a huge problem?  Leftist stupidity is a special class of stupidity. The people concerned are mostly not stupid in general but they have a character defect (mostly arrogance) that makes them impatient with complexity and unwilling to study it.  So in their policies they repeatedly shoot themselves in the foot;  They fail to attain their objectives.  The world IS complex so a simplistic approach to it CANNOT work.

At the time of the 1917 revolution, Russia was a rapidly modernizing country with railways snaking out across the land and a flourishing agricultural sector that made it a major wheat exporter.  After the revolution agricultural production dropped by about one third and right through the Soviet era Russia never managed to feed itself.  Europe's subsidized food surpluses were a Godsend to it.  A lot of those food surpluses went East.

And Lenin really had no excuse for his stupidity.  There were both writers and practical men in his era who DID understand how economies work and how to get the best out of them. Eugen Böhm,  Ritter von Bawerk, was even a market-oriented economic theorist who was a practical man as well.  He was the Austrian Minister of Finance in the late 19th century and also wrote a series of extensive critiques of Marxism.  And the Austrian economy worked unusually well while he was in charge.  But Böhm's ideas were non-obvious and even counter-intuitive from a layman's viewpoint and it was only a layman's viewpoint that Lenin had.  How sad.

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